Review of Red Earth


Craig Womac

Red Earth : Two Novellas, Philip H. Red Eagle. Duluth MN: Holy Cow Press, 1997. $12.95
paper, ISBN O-930100-74-3. 160 pp..

Philip Red Eagle's book Red Earth is a novella about Native soldiers in Vietnam who travel through time and through a series of inter-connected events, each character emerging, in some cases, in Vietnam and, at other points, back home in many instances with foreknowledge of a future which they have already lived. Red Eagle's technique of moving characters in time is so complex that it is a little hard to explain outside the stories themselves. They are not Dickensian observers, mere ghosts of experiences past, nor are they cliched time travelers sent back to fix things. The best word I can think of in terms of their relationship to the past is "interactive." Other authors have explored re-lived Vietnam experience, the warrior who returns physically but not spiritually, the trauma of Vietnam re-asserting itself in civilian life so that pre- and post-Vietnam do not exist. Red Eagle radicalizes this treatment, however, in a manner consistent with a Dakota worldview. The idea of extended kinship, the inter-connectedness of all things, is so pervasive in Red Eagle's novel that linear cause and effect is completely disrupted. In the novel, this extended kinship centers around the fact that the "real world" of post-Vietnam experience profoundly overlaps other worlds, other beings.

An example of the disruption of cause and effect occurs in one early scene in the novel when Raymond Crow-Belt withholds a "Dear John" letter from a soldier by the name of Martinez, who, in "ordinary time," has already received the letter. This kind of time interruption - time as points of light in three-dimensional space rather than marks along a time line - makes sense in light of war experience. As Tim O'Brien says in his well-known essay "How to Tell a True War Story":

In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and look outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed. War stories continue to unfold long after the war ends, revised by life after battle, oftentimes resisting easy meaning.

Red Eagle's approach of placing the Vietnam story inside a much broader view of what constitutes time takes into account this tendency of war to be refracted through constantly changing angles of vision. Most amazingly, through visionary experience, Red Eagle's characters physically return to Vietnam, years after they have come home, a journey, on the one hand, incomprehensible (why would anyone want to go back?), and, on the other, fascinating (the warrior with a sense of retrospection reexamining his experience in the actual environment it took place in rather than stateside reflection). A less capable author might have made these characters return to Vietnam for the purpose of intervening in history and thwarting disaster - ambushed patrols forewarned, and so on. This book avoids the easy route and sends the characters back to South Asia on more complicated spiritual patrols, making them look at both Vietnam and life afterwards differently.

Characters who go back simply do whatever they can in the old/new environment by engaging in small acts of kindness, instruction, and understanding that may or may not be successful. For instance, in regards to a Vietnamese woman Raymond goes back and tries to help, we are told, "He would never know Phoung's fate. She could have died of thirst on the high seas trying to get out of Vietnam. She could have died at the hands of pirates. She could have died in a re-education camp. He could never know. He had done what he could" (66). In Vietnam, the second time around, those sent back engage in small acts of responsibility, ironically, in ways that many of the characters have failed to find in their post-Vietnam lives. Yet Red Eagle's effort is not to vindicate the battle experience nor find meaning in Vietnam nor to seek consolation in war. The search for meaning lies elsewhere, in tribal vision. Meaning has to do with the characters, and the author, taking seriously the notion of the sacred, assuming a teleological universe where certain people are chosen to go back in order to learn about the world of vision, of extended kinship, of responsibility. By implication, the book offers the hope that for those for whom the damage is not irreparable, such paths of responsibility especially through the act of storytelling, lie open as possibilities for their lives after the war.

The genius of Red Eagle's approach in depicting Vietnam experience is that he avoids the assumption that the more shocking the violence, the more accurate and authentic the portrayal. This simplistic thinking, this faith in the absolute power of realism has informed many of the films about Vietnam. Since the onslaught of all these movies, Vietnam has become a cliche where the things that should genuinely horrify us go uncritiqued (such as the repeatability of Vietnam in America's global vision), and body bags are viewed in conjunction with eating popcorn, the films, ultimately, ending up one more grotesque display of testosterone in a pop culture that has become obsessed with violence. In his abandonment of realism, Red Eagle takes the road of the artist, assuming that the truth lies outside a mere recitation of the facts. A more metaphorical journey makes a lot of sense in terms of conveying Vietnam experience since metaphor brings together disparate reality, seeks out surprising comparisons between things which, on the surface, might seem contradictory or unrelated. And what could be more contradictory than Vietnam, especially an Indian fighting in a place that became known in military jargon as "Indian country?" How could realism possibly serve such a discussion?

Even my analysis here is limited by overly fixed meaning: "metaphor" isn't exactly the term for what Red Eagle is doing since he is using tribal vision to describe Vietnam and assuming that vision gets as close to the bone as any "objective" account. To quote Joy Harjo's important phrase on the back of the book, Red Eagle's is a "point of view based in tribal realities." At the heart of the book is a question that Red Eagle is the first to ask, as far as I know: What does it mean to cast Vietnam in the context of sacred story, sacred vision? A question of this magnitude asks us not only to re-examine Vietnam but to reconsider the meaning of the oral tradition as well, an incredibly important endeavor in our search for the present-day meaning of the tradition - a strategy that moves Native traditional narrative beyond ethnography to contemporary relevancy.

The book makes another contribution toward furthering Native literary studies in that it casts Native American homecoming stories in a totally new light. A historical paradigm for Native novelists, which dates back to the novels of the 1930s and extends to novels of the so-called Native American literary renaissance, is the theme of the warrior who returns home psychically wounded whose reintegration into the home community is difficult due to both cultural and personal distance. Many of the characters are already estranged from their home communities before they ever leave for war, and the battle experience complicates their problems. The earlier novels were more pessimistic, but in the later works, most of these characters are brought back into the fold through ceremonial and ritual participation, as well as discovering key identity markers through the oral tradition that move them beyond a sense of alienation, beyond angst over personal identity toward the larger issue of what it means to be one of the people. Red Eagle's novel, however, is not about coming home to the reservation; it is about coming home to battle overseas, an ironic reversal of the earlier pattern. It is about going home to a place you'd rather not return to, going home to a place that never was home and yet ends up being more home than you could have ever imagined. This other "lndian country" embodies yet another extension of colonial expansionism - a place that, like the Americas, was first overrun by Europeans, more specifically, the French, then the U.S.

In the homecoming novels, the characters deal with personal identity and with cultural issues, but the critique of the oppressive colonial relation, particularly in regards to land theft, is seldom directly discussed as one of the factors that has created the characters' alienation in the first place. Such critique is implicit rather than explicit. By making ritual knowledge available, even in Vietnam, by sending healthy warriors back like Raymond Crow-Belt who already have solid cultural ties rather than cultural distance, the focus of the storytelling shifts from the malaise of the tribal protagonist to the system that creates malaise. The tribal protagonist isn't messed up; Vietnam is messed up. Even with the less well-adjusted characters in the novella like Stoney, the tribal world, that surrounds him, is still intact; the world of vision and spirit is primary. Thus, colonialism becomes a direct subject of critique, foregrounded, rather than backgrounded, as in the homecoming novels, behind more prevalent themes such as reconnection to tradition. This kind of account reminds us that American involvement in Vietnam is no accident; it occurred in an historical context that can be traced back to nineteenth century Indian country where one culture imagines itself superior in terms of its predestined progress and sees itself impeded by another culture holding it back from achieving its goals, wherein the obstruction of the Other must be removed by whatever means necessary.

I have to show my biases as an Oklahoma Indian writer by mentioning that the title of the novella, Red Earth, refers not only to the similarity between Vietnam's topography and the remembered earth of the character Raymond's trip to Oklahoma in his youth, but it may also be a subtle link to the author's discovery of voice in the summer of 1992 in Norman, Oklahoma, where over three hundred Native writers from throughout the Americas were in each other's presence talking about their craft sharing ideas, visiting, and partying into the wee hours of many mornings in a fashion that approached the level of myth. This gathering was most notable because Indians were talking with other Indians about things Indian rather than being interpreted by the usual crowd of Indian experts. About this meeting, Red Eagle's biographical blurb says, "Inspired by everyone there he decided to start writing the stories he had been wanting to tell but could not find the voice. He found it in Oklahoma." This notion of the inspiration of red earth informs the novel as well, the way in which a place has meaning through the spirit voices that reside there and make their way into stories.

Reprinted with permission of the reviewer from Studies in American Indian Literatures, V10, No1, Spring 1998, pp 91-95.

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